Ironing the wrinkles
John Hackworth isn't wasting any time looking ahead to 2013.
The Union manager is in South America with Ricardo Ansaldi, the man recently hired to direct international player development. It's a scouting trip with personnel moves in mind.
The issues facing the Union technical staff involve adding pieces to the team, but they also involve maximizing the potential of the players currently on the squad. There are two different sets of concerns that need attention heading into 2013.
Here's a look at some of those issues.
1. Where Does Amobi Okugo Play?
This is what we would call a "good problem."
The biggest issue is figuring out what to do with the dynamic youngster. Okugo, 21, excelled at center back this season, proving himself as a capable defensive partner alongside captain Carlos Valdes.
But with the hope Bakary Soumare will enter preaeason in full health, does Okugo move back into the midfield? Does he remain at center half?
In his natural position, Okugo is a defensive-minded midfielder who wins challenges and distributes the ball. That job currently belongs to Brian Carroll, and also Michael Lahoud. One of those guys will have to make room for Okugo if he's re-inserted into the midfield.
Concerns aside, Okugo's emergence as a bonafide central defender provides great depth on the backline, which was mostly an afterthought under Peter Nowak. However, it was the former Union coach who first used Okugo in that position this season. That opened the door for full-time duty under Hackworth.
2. The Fullback Situation
It's a recurring thorn in the side.
Gabriel Farfan again found himself at left back this season, after preseason signing Porfirio Lopez failed to establish himself following four consecutive starts. Farfan played well this year, but we all know that he's a natural midfielder. He's a creative, right footed guy who can contribute in a more advanced role.
Finding a left back is once again a top off-season priority.
At right fullback, you have Sheanon Williams, whom Hackworth believes is one of the best right backs in Major League Soccer. Williams played four different positions this season, filling at left back and center half, and also playing wide right in Peter Nowak's 3-5-2 system. He was incredibly flexible and effective in all spots.
The problem here is trying to fit Ray Gaddis into the equation. Gaddis impressed in his rookie season, but he's also a right-sided player.
Problem: You have two excellent fullbacks, but they play the same position.
Starting Gaddis at right back gets him onto the field, but only at the expense of Williams. Sure, you can play Sheanon at left back, but you won't get the most of out him in that position.
Should Gaddis see minutes if it means that Sheanon Williams is less effective? That's the question at right fullback.
3. Who plays the CAM role?
CAM: Central Attacking Midfielder
The job belonged to Michael Farfan this year, but Freddy Adu and Roger Torres got some time in this role.
How do you sort these guys out?
Farfan led the team with five assists. Adu scored five goals and provided quality service, but mostly from the wings. Torres fought through an early season injury to get some minutes at the end of the year.
There are analysts and experts who say that Michael Farfan is better when he plays on the right. Others say that Adu (and even Adu himself, on occasion) belongs in the middle, playing a free role behind the strikers. Torres plays those floated chipped passes to perfection and arguably has the best vision of the three.
Either way, the Union need to increase their assist production from the midfield. The team created 23 assists in 2012, but only 10 of those assists came from midfielders. Farfan, Adu, and Torres combined for eight assists in league play. Jack McInerney, Lionard Pajoy, and Sheanon Williams added seven total assists. Nine different players were credited with one.
4. McInerney's Strike Partner
Hackworth has been frank about the team's need for a proven goal scorer.
Don't think so? Here's a quote from his postseason press conference:
“Our offseason priorities are simple - we want to improve our roster. We don’t think we need a lot of changes and we feel good about our foundation and core players. That said, it’s no secret we need someone to come in here and score goals and add experience to a youthful side, whether that player is a target striker or meets my so-called physical expectations. We’re looking for that experienced goal-scorer and if we find one and can get him here, that will be fantastic.”
Jack McInerney led the team with eight league goals this season, but he needs a solid partner to play with. At his best, Jack Mac is an opportunist, a poacher-type who puts himself into good positions and reads the game quickly. He can benefit from a target striker, or basically anyone who can occupy bigger center halves and create some room in the final third.
The same can be said for Antoine Hoppenot, or Chandler Hoffman, or any of the Union's young attackers. They've got great potential in this league, but it's a tough task to be the pointman as a first or second year player.
5. Formation: 4-3-3 or 4-4-2?
The Union stayed with Peter Nowak's 4-3-3 formation through the summer, but Hackworth began to tweak the shape after the team hit a late-season rough patch.
The 4-3-3 had its extremely bright moments, such as the 4-0 blow out against Kansas City and the 5-2 win over Harrisburg. When it was clicking, the 4-3-3 was a fluid formation that focused on short passing and keeping the ball on the ground. But when more physical teams were able to disrupt that rhythm, the shape failed to generate chances. Look at the results in the Open Cup semifinal, and the trip to New York as examples.
Hackworth likes to play attacking football, so a return to the 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 "empty bucket" seems unlikely.
However, offseason personnel moves will obviously play a role in tactical changes.
Contact Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kevin on Twitter @PhilUnionKevinK